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Deepak Chopra misses the point, again.

May 18, 2011

Christopher Hitchens wrote a letter to the American Atheists, which I wrote about previously. Now Deepak Chopra has condescended to explain to us how Christopher Hitchens was wrong. In fact, everyone who dismisses superstition and embraces reason is apparently wrong. It’s a good thing that we have deep thinkers like Mr. Chopra to tell us just how wrong we are.

“The key terms that Hitchens uses to describe that world view are familiar in the  rhetoric of atheism: superstition, false consolation, “mind-forged manacles of  servility,” “stultifying pseudo-science,” and of course, the blandishments of  organized religion.”

Chopra decries the use of the words like superstition to describe beliefs that are based on nothing more than wishful thinking. This is like objecting to the word “green” as a description of grass. According to wiktionary, superstition is defined as:

  1. A belief, not based on human reason or scientific knowledge, that future events may be influenced by one’s behaviour in some magical or mystical way.

Does belief in life after death (which is the point Hitchens was making) meet the requirements for to be called superstition?

  1. It is not based on human reason or scientific knowledge. No one has ever been able to point to any evidence whatsoever for the existence of life after death. Without observation, there can be no scientific knowledge.
  2. Belief in life after death is believing that fiture events may be influenced by one’s behavior. Most religions predicate the nature of your existence in the afterlife on your behavior in this one.
  3. If living on after death as a soul (another concept that qualifies as superstition, since it’s existence is also not based on reason or scientific knowledge) doesn’t qualify as magical or mystical, then I’m pretty sure the term has no meaning.

The term pseudoscience doesn’t apply to traditional religion in this case, since it makes no attempt to use sciencey language to explain the phenomenon of the soul. It does, however, apply to new age quacks like Chopra who often attempt to cloak their mumbo jumbo in a verneer of scientific respectability.

Chopra’s next point makes no more sense than his first.

“Rhetoric is rhetoric, and in a rousing debate no one takes seriously that  atheists are founts of decency and morality while sincere believers are all  servile and superstitious.”

It’s Chopra who equates the virtues of rationalism with decency and morality. Since he assumes that scientific objectivity is superior to superstition (I thank him for arguing our point here), he is basically attempting to paint superstition as science. Sincere believers, insofar as they believe in superstition, are superstitious. That’s an elementary point of logic that even Mr. Chopra should be able to grasp. The servility comes in, once again, through organized religion. Since one of the basic tenets of religion is that your behavior determines the nature of your existence in the afterlife, and since Abrahamic religions require certain acts, behaviors and restraints on normal human behavior in order to be granted this afterlife, religion requires servility. Submission to god (the very meaning of the word Muslim) and following arcane rules about human relationships (as seen in both the Tanakh and the Christian Bible) are required – not recommended, but required – in order to survive after death. This is pretty much the definition of servility. But don’t take my word for it. Let’s see how wiktionary defines the word servile.

  • of or pertaining to a slave
  • submissive or slavish

The first definition doesn’t necessarily apply here. Although some people are slaves to their religion, it is possible to be religious without being a slave. However, submission is a requirement of Abrahamic religions. Those who do not submit to God are damned. The servility of the devoutly religious is obvious. What I suspect is that Mr. Chopra doesn’t object to attitude of servility – he objects to it being called servility. Afterall, we all know that servility is bad. Since Mr. Chopra likes religion and thinks that it’s good, it therefore cannot induce servility. This is an attempt to apply logic in reverse.

Then Deepak Chopra goes to blatantly lie about atheists and their attitude towards “spirituality” (whatever that means in the real world).

“By making belief in God their enemy, atheists deprive themselves of what  spirituality is really about: a process of inner growth. There are wisdom  traditions around the world that do not use the word God (e.g., Buddhism,  Vedanta) or advocate religious worship in the conventional sense. Countless  people have seen through the faults of organized religion and turned instead to  their own spiritual journey. Hitchens and other atheists stand at the door to  that journey and slam it shut, assuring all who approach that to seek God, the  soul, or higher reality is a fool’s errand.”

If spirituality is, for Mr. Chopra, a process of inner growth, more power to him. I happen to agree that inner growth is desirable, so long as we can agree as to what that means. Meditation and contemplation are valuable tools for examining our lives, determining how we got to the point where we are, and finding the best path for the next stage of our journey. If Mr. Chopra wants to call that process spirituality, he’s giving it a definition I can applaud. He’s also right that many wisdom traditions from around the world don’t use the term “God” or advocatefor  religious observance.

No atheist that I know of has any real problem with this type of religion. I would recommend that Mr. Chopra actually read what atheists such as Sam Harris (The End of Faith) and Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) has to say about this type of religion. In The God Delusion, it’s only necessary to read the introduction. The problem atheists have with religion is specifically with those “wisdom traditions” that do insist on the existence of god(s), and that do require certain beliefs and actions from their adherents – there’s that servility again.

But notice what Chopra does at the end of this quote. He made a point about traditions that don’t use the term God and don’t have rituals and weird behavioral restrictions – then he pivots and argues a completely different point. “All who approach that to seek God, the  soul, or higher reality is a fool’s errand.” He makes a good point about the utility of engaging in a process of spiritual growth. He reminds us that not all those who do so believe in god(s). Then he makes the false arguement that those of us who agree with him on the first point, and are already aware of the second point, are wrong because we believe that it is foolish to believe in the supernatural. He is falsely equating a belief in the importance of engaging in inner growth with a belief in superstition.

Dharmakirti, a 7th century Buddhist wrote (Pramanvartik)

Believing that the Veda are standard (holy or divine), believing in a Creator for the world,
Bathing in holy waters for gaining punya, having pride (vanity) about one’s caste,
Performing penance to absolve sins,
Are the five symptoms of having lost one’s sanity.

We aren’t the ones making the false equivalence and attacking straw men. It’s Deepak Chopra.

Chopra ends by lauding Christopher Hitchens’ courage in facing a losing battle against cancer, then adds this gem:

Spirituality is existential, too. It asks who we are, why we are here, and what  are the highest values by which a person should live. The atheist’s mistake is  to hog the moral limelight, declaring that only non-believers own the truth. The  truth is a process of discovery, and anyone who blocks the process and denies  its validity needs to wake up before denouncing anyone else as stupid or blind.

Who are we? Why are we here? What are the highest values by which a person should live? These are valuable questions. Humans have been asking these questions for time immemorial. I also agree that the truth is a process of discovery. But how is that atheists are blocking the process? None of them I know are denying the validity of these questions. What we believe is that servility (or submission to god or authoritative texts, if you prefer) isn’t the way to arrive at truth. Nor is endless contemplation of the “soul” – a noun almost completely without meaning in the real world.

Furthermore, traditional religion (especially the Abrahamic religions) hamper real inquiry and the process of inner growth by providing authoritative answers to these questions. They are the ones standing in the way of “spiritual progress” as defined by Mr. Chopra. Maybe people like Deepak Chopra, who approach these questions from a Hindu or Buddhist perspective, would do better to lose the ecumenical world view and just admit that those who believe that “spritual growth” is reliant on subservience to selfish divine beings, and that the only acceptable path by which to grow was codified in infallible, authoritative texts that can never be questioned, are not his allies in this struggle*. They stand for the opposite of what he claims to stand for.

We have some common ground on these issues.  Let’s agree that a process of inner growth (or personal improvement) is useful. Let’s agree that it’s important to ask questions about the nature of reality, the human experience and what constitutes moral and ethical behavior. But that doesn’t mean that we have to accept belief in superstition or mysticism. As Mr. Chopra (and Dharmakriti) have pointed out already, a belief in these irrational things is not necessary in order to have a discussion about these issues.

* I would like to make it very clear that I am referring to fundamentalist and evangelical Christians, Jews and Muslims in this passage – those who believe in the infallibility of their texts and that they can never be questioned. I know many Christians, Jews and Muslims who don’t fall into this camp. They have a more abstract and philosophical view of their god and their faith. Good for them. I may think it odd that they choose to believe in strange and supernatural beings, but they aren’t the enemies of reason and rational inquiry that fundamentalists and evangelicals are.

I have seen no evidence that their gods exist, and I will continue to point that out both on my own blog and in response to their god talk elsewhere,  but I will admit that they are not the enemy of humanism and reason. In short, they’re wrong in their beliefs, but they aren’t evil.

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